One could say that Sjöwall and Wahlöö are the grandfathers of Swedish crime. They wrote long before Nordic crime was the thing it has become. Their Martin Beck series is said to be one of the best around. A true classic. While the books have been around for as long as I can think, I never picked one up, although I have always been curious. Now, finally, because I was looking for a locked room mystery, I came across the eight title in the Martin Beck series, The Locked Room, and thought I’ll give it a try. I know it’s not ideal to start with book eight in a series but it was OK. I never felt liked I was missing a ton of information. According to Michael Connelly, who wrote the introduction to this book, it’s one of their best.
This book was not what I’ve expected. It was so much better. So good in fact that I immediately downloaded the first in the series.
Detective Inspector Martin Beck isn’t the central character in this book because he’s been shot and only just returned to work after an eighteen month break. To help him get back into the routine, he’s been assigned a minor case. A man has shot himself and Beck has to wrap up the case.
Parallel to this case, we follow the police investigating a bank robbery that has gone terribly wrong. One of the customers was shot. For years, the police have tried to catch a group of bank robbers, but they always escaped. The police are pretty sure that the robbers they are chasing, robbed this bank as well, even though they never shot anyone before.
The readers know from the beginning that someone else has robbed the bank. We also learn that the suicide Beck investigates was a murder. The man was found dead, shot, in a locked room and no weapon could be found.
These are two very different cases. The one Beck investigates is more suspenseful as we only know as much as Beck knows. The other case is rather hilarious. And this is exactly why this series surprised me so much and why I loved this book. Very obviously Sjöwall and Wahlöö were very fond of their character Beck. Beck, who is a bit of a loner, is very intelligent, a thinker, slightly sarcastic and disillusioned but not bitter. His colleagues aren’t too keen on him, they find him bizarre and too unconventional. He’s definitely an outsider. While we can feel how much the authors like Beck, we also notice quickly, how little they think of the police in general. They make fun of the bank robbery squad wherever they can. More than one of their missions turns into a farce. Some of these characters are very likeable too but dorky. Others, especially those higher up in the ranks are just clueless.
I really enjoyed the mix of such different cases. The quiet, introspective case Beck was on and the big bank robbery investigation that took surprising turns and had many funny moments.
Another aspect I liked was that the book was full of social criticism. It’s really quite harsh in places. The authors excoriate Swedish society and politics.
I know that Beck is more prominent in the earlier books, so I can’t wait to read a novel in which he gets more room. He’s a great character.
All in all, a very pleasant surprise. Sharp, pithy writing, combined with dry humour, appealing characters, a realistic setting, and two interesting cases. What more could you want?